Thursday, August 04, 2005

The boy, the number singing parrot and Sherlock Holmes


Berkeley novelist Michael Chabon, who won the Pulitzer Prize for "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," returns with a superb Sherlock Holmes pastiche, "The Final Solution: A Story of Detection" ($16.95 in hardcover from Fourth Estate). Though the famous detective is referred to only as "the old man," it is clear that the game is still afoot and that the murderer will meet his match.

It is midsummer, 1944, wartime, and the old man, now 89, lives alone in the English countryside as a keeper of bees. But then he spots him: "A boy with a parrot on his shoulder was walking along the railway tracks." It was, Chabon writes, "a promising anomaly." In an effort to warn the boy of the danger of the electrified third rail the old man gets up. Chabon describes the event in telling detail.

"Even on a sultry afternoon like this one, when cold and damp did not trouble the hinges of his skeleton, it could be a lengthy undertaking, done properly, to rise from his chair, negotiate the shifting piles of ancient-bachelor clutter -- newspapers both cheap and of quality, trousers, bottles of salve and liver pills, learned annals and quarterlies, plates of crumbs -- that made treacherous the crossing of his parlor, and open his front door to the world."

The boy does not speak, but the parrot does. "'Zwei ens sieben funf vier sieben drei,'" the parrot said, in a soft, oddly breathy voice, with the slightest hint of a lisp. ... The old man blinked. The German numbers were so unexpected, literally so outlandish, that for a moment they registered only as a series of uncanny noises, savage avian utterances devoid of any sense."

The boy, it turns out, is named Linus Steinman, 9 years old, seemingly mute, a refugee from Nazi Germany with only the exotic African gray as his companion. He and the bird are living in a vicarage near the old man. Mr. Panicker, the vicar, tells the new lodger, Mr. Shane, that the boy "formed part of a small group of children, most of them Jewish, whose emigration to Britain was negotiated by Mr. Wilkes, the vicar of the English Church in Berlin."

Mr. Shane takes little interest in anything but the bird, Bruno. Later, when Shane is found murdered and the bird purloined, Reggie Panicker, the vicar's ne'er-do-well son, is arrested, charged with both crimes. When Detective Inspector Michael Bellows (whose grandfather had known the old man) and Detective Constable DC Quint show up at the old man's door, he takes little interest in the crime -- until the missing parrot is mentioned. "I am retired," the old man tells the two officials. "As indeed I have been since the 10th of August, 1914."

But still: "'I have considered the needs of my bees. And I believe that I can spare a few hours. Therefore I will assist you.' He held up a long, admonishing finger. 'To find the boy's parrot.' ... 'If we should encounter the actual murderer along the way, well, then it will be so much the better for you.'"

The vicar, Mr. Panicker, "was a faithless middle-aged minister, drunk and in flight from the ruin of his life." The old man finds himself in the company of the vicar as the two journey to London, past military checkpoints, to solve the crime. Mr. Panicker "felt a mounting sense ... that they were penetrating to the heart of some authentic mystery of London, or perhaps of life itself; that at last, in the company of this singular old gentleman whose command of mystery had at one time been spoken of as far away as Kerala, he might discover some elucidation of the heartbreaking clockwork of the world."

The title of the book, of course, has a double meaning, and while the case is solved and the parrot found (there is a chapter from Bruno's point of view), the central mystery of the numbers sung by the bird -- are they the key to a Swiss bank account? A secret German code? -- reminds the reader that though the existence of detective stories speaks to some measure of order and justice in the world, those mysterious numbers speak of a disorder and injustice in the world, "devoid of any sense," that Sherlock Holmes could never fathom.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

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